In April 2018 the European Commission (Commission) published its Communication on the digital transformation of health and care in the Digital Single Market (Communication). The Commission outlined the need for reforms to health care systems and the development of innovative digital solutions. On 6 December 2018, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) published its opinion on the Communication (Opinion) in which it expressed its agreement with the vision set out by the Commission.
Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee
The EESC noted its support of the Commission’s proposed action in relation to three main areas: (i) secure access of the public to, and sharing of, health data across borders; (ii) disease prevention and personalised health and care; and (iii) digital tools for citizen empowerment and person-centred care.
The Opinion focuses on the impact of digital transformation on five main areas:
1. Health and care
The EESC considers that it is essential to increase the sustainability of European health care systems and that greater use of digital products and services will help to maximise the potential of the digital single market. It believes that digitisation will assist patient recovery and reduce the amount of time spent in hospital.
Digital transformation not only gives individuals wide access to innovative and more efficient personalised healthcare, but it also allows them to contribute to improving the health of others as service, information and data providers. It is crucial to have regard to the General Data Protection Regulation, and individuals should have the right to access their health data and have the ability to make decisions on whether (and with whom) to share such data.
3. Social and health systems
The EESC expresses its support of the four-pillar process for cross-border cooperation identified in the Communication which would comprise: joint clinical assessments. joint scientific consultations; identification of emerging health technologies. and voluntary cooperation among European Union Member States. Novel health care solutions made possible by digital transformations will raise complex ethical, social and legal issues and caregivers will need to undergo specific training in order to accommodate new job profiles and transformations in working environments.
4. The digital market
Digital transformation will promote the development of agile new business models. The EESC expresses its support for digital services in the health care sector and states that existing platforms (e.g., Alfred, Big White Wall, Medicine Patient Portal) can be regarded as enabling the digital transformation in the digital single market.
5. Service providers
Technological advances will enable new approaches in the field of personalised and precision medicine. The take-up of new technology will require processes relating to service design, provision and evaluation to be adapted. The potential for the widespread use of data will open new scenarios for sharing data, knowledge and expertise and European-wide networks will help doctors tap into centres of expertise in other locations. Cybersecurity in the health landscape is a key priority and digital transformation will necessitate new methods and guidance in this area.
Words of caution
Although largely positive, the Opinion notes some general cautionary observations:
- Digitalisation processes must not be interpreted as savings packages for health care budgets and must not lead to personnel cuts or cuts in services. Staff shortages lead to poor care and increased morbidity risk.
- The rapid development and expansion of digital technology must not result in patients being treated as ‘mere connected bodies’ monitored remotely by powerful IT systems.
- The risk of a widening gap in people’s digital literacy levels. In the context of health care, this could affect an individual’s ability to acquire, understand and use information responsibly to promote their well-being and stay healthy.
Through its Opinion, the EESC has provided its response to the issues raised in the Communication. Although neither the Opinion nor the Communication have any legal effect, both provide a useful insight into the thinking of European Union lawmakers in relation to the opportunities and challenges presented by digital transformation in European health care systems.